Wednesday, June 29, 2011

"Billy Elliot": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

In the world of entertainment, the hardest thing to do is write a story that can be explained in one sentence. But try this: "English lad from coal country wishes to be a ballet dancer instead of a coal miner." And there you have Billy Elliot, the Musical, originally a film and now a stage show, with music by Elton John and book and lyrics by Lee Hall. The show was a well-deserved smash on Broadway and is now touring across America.

You are pretty much guaranteed to love the show, if you meet the following qualifications:

1) You like underdogs
2) You like underdogs who can dance
3) You like underdogs who can dance and are sweethearts.

It will help, but it is not absolutely essential, if

4) You can understand a word of Northern English dialog.

If you meet qualifications 1-3, Number 4 is not a deal breaker. Obsolootly nowt.

This is a long show (nearly three hours) and the the role of Billy is an arduous one. For this reason, and perhaps also due to child labor law, they have five different actors on board to play the title role. On opening night we saw 15-year-old local hero J.P. Viernes. He is an excellent actor, if perhaps a bit of a nervous dancer in front of the hometown crowd. His friend Michael (Jacob Zelonky, age 12), in a far more abbreviated role, was funny and fabulous, as were dance instructor Mrs. Wilkerson (Faith Prince) and Billy's Dad (Rich Hebert).

If you are among those who see Elton John's name on the music credits and fear you will be getting more dumbed-down Disney, fear not. The songs in Billy Elliot, particularly in Act One, may make you love Sir Elton again. The first four numbers in the show are all knockouts, from the impressive opener "The Stars Look Down," through "Shine," the emotional "We'd Go Dancing" (sung by Patti Perkins as Billy's grandmother) and the exceptional "Solidarity," which does what Broadway used to do: the song involves your heart while the choreography, where a child's dance class intermingles with angry striking miners and hardnosed police, brings you to your feet.

There is much to enjoy about Billy Elliot. The success of the show depends on how much you identify with little Billy. On Opening Night this was easy, but there are four other Billys waiting in the wings. Some will be stronger dancers and some will be stronger actors. The role needs both. Billy Elliot will dazzle you.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Billy Elliot" Four Stars. It's a show you don't want to miss. The ratings would perhaps have been somewhat higher if the size of the Orpheum stage had permitted more fluidity and range of motion from the dancers. This is probably one of those shows you'll wish you got to see in New York. But it is still a solid four star production and worth every quid.

"Billy Elliot (The Musical)"
Orpheum Theater
1192 Market Street, San Francisco
Through September 17

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